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Peggy Goetz on Planning Worship with Stroke Survivors

Peggy Goetz is a communication arts and sciences professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Observing her speech pathology students in Calvin’s stroke clinic sparked her to research the experience of stroke survivors in their church communities.

Peggy Goetz met in March 2014 with Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff to share her research and brainstorm ideas for a worship service with stroke survivors. In this edited interview, based on that meeting and email conversations, she offers tips for planning worship with stroke survivors.

Why did you want to do a worship service with stroke survivors and their families?

My research involved going with stroke survivors to their church services to try to understand their experiences, good and bad. Most people have strokes late in their life, and each individual’s stroke is unique, so stroke survivors often don’t have much of a sense of community the way many other groups with disabilities do. I was hoping that the worship service might help form a community and help churches begin talking about what to do when one of their members experiences a stroke.

How did you go about planning it, and how did you involve stroke survivors in planning?

I worked with my research assistant, Marie Bloem, to plan the service. Originally I had planned to do lots of music and non-verbal things, maybe along the lines of a Taizé service. Instead we made a very small, simple, traditional service for two reasons. One, most stroke survivors we interviewed came from more casual and non-liturgical types of worship communities, and we didn’t want to do something completely different from their usual worship experience. Two, in interviewing we found that the main concerns of stroke survivors and their families related to their social interactions and sense of purpose in a service. We focused on those concerns by using very familiar traditional hymns so that anyone who couldn’t read could sing from memory. We also focused on feeling free to lament and on recognizing hope.  

What were the highlights of the worship service? 

Two individuals who had strokes took part in the service. One read the scripture, and one gave a short testimony about her experience after her stroke. We are hoping to do this kind of service next year as well, and I asked one stroke survivor if he would be interested in speaking next year. He said, “I’ll think about it.” The clinician who works with him was standing nearby, and she commented that they could have that as a goal for his therapy next year. If we do this again, I’d love to have even more stroke survivors participating in the service, because many of them are not asked to do much in their churches, but they are almost all looking for a purpose.

Another high point was that Mark Stephenson, director of Christian Reformed Church Disability Concerns, gave a message on lament and comfort, and he told much of his own journey with a child with disabilities. Many people said they could really relate with what he said.

What did you do after the worship service?

We had a dinner, which was the best part of the experience. Everyone was served at their seats, which meant the stroke survivors and their partners did not have to negotiate ordering food or going through a buffet line. People could just take their time talking with the others at their table. People said they enjoyed it very much, and I received a number of emails afterwards. I think people had initially been a bit hesitant about attending since they didn’t know what it would be like.  

Did you try to guide table conversations at the dinner?

I had asked people to bring something they could share at their tables—perhaps an object to represent something about their spiritual journey or something they were thankful for. Someone at my table brought a photo album of their stroke and the progress they made. We did that part very informally before the dinner, because I heard through the grapevine that my request to bring some object had made a lot of them rather nervous. Some thought about not coming. If we can do this at a future worship service and dinner, I hope people will be less nervous about that kind of sharing. It just shows how people with communication disorders will feel very vulnerable if they are asked to communicate, especially in a new setting.

What changes would you recommend for planning a similar service?

The big thing is to include as many stroke survivors as possible in the service. For next year, I would love to have students act out the scripture or do something a little more inventive and visual. But I think it’s good to try to keep the services simple, calm and casual. Stroke survivors consistently report that church is a very difficult place for them because they have so many things they have to pay attention to. They need to stand up, sit down, move around, read, listen, sing and speak, and it’s very tiring.

What can congregations do in their regular worship services to include stroke survivors?

The main thing is to spend some time with them. Visit them at home or meet them for coffee. Those “coffee break” moments when you can just sit and chat and not have any pressure to speak are the best for someone with a communication disability. These conversations will give you an idea of the stroke survivor’s specific challenges, whether with listening, reading, understanding or physical movement.

People who no longer read appreciate being able to sing familiar songs. People who have lost cognition benefit from liturgies with simple repetitive responses and from written, spoken and visual modalities of the scripture and sermon. Some people with aphasia [inability to understand or express speech] may appreciate physical gestures in worship—greeting people with a hug, passing the peace, raising hands or clapping during songs, taking communion, laying hands on a person being prayed for or holding hands with other worshipers during a song or benediction. 

Did you find any resources especially helpful in planning the worship service with stroke survivors?

Meeting with the staff of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff was helpful. They suggested using The Worship Sourcebook for simple readings and responses and showing things in nature that make people feel connected to God. I also used an opening prayer from Mennonite blogger Carol Penner.

See the order of worship that Peggy Goetz used in her 2014 worship service with stroke survivors.